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Tensions spike as Turkish military convoy enters Idlib


MAARET AL-NOMAN: A Turkish military convoy crossed into extremist-run northwest Syria on Monday, sending tensions soaring between Damascus and Ankara which said its forces were targeted with an air strike.

The Syrian government reacted angrily after the convoy entered Idlib province and headed towards a key town where regime forces are waging fierce battles with extremists and rebels.

After eight years of civil war, the extremist-run Idlib region on the border with Turkey is the last major stronghold of opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The region of some three million people was supposed to be protected by a Turkish-Russian buffer zone deal signed last year, but instead regime and Russian forces have upped their deadly bombardment of the bastion since late April.

Following days of inching forward on the ground, Russian-backed regime forces on Sunday took control of the edges of the town of Khan Sheikhun in the south of the stronghold.

On Monday, an AFP correspondent saw a military convoy of around 50 armoured vehicles including personnel carriers and at least five tanks travelling southwards through the Idlib province.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, reported Syrian and Russian air strikes aimed at hindering the convoy’s advance through Idlib province.

Turkey’s defence ministry “strongly” condemned the attack, which it said had killed three civilians and wounded 12.

“Despite repeated warnings we made to the authorities of the Russian Federation, the military operations by the regime forces continue in Idlib region in violation of the existing memorandums and agreements with the Russian Federation,” it said in a statement.

The Damascus regime meanwhile denounced the convoy’s crossing over from Turkey.

“Turkish vehicles loaded with munitions... are heading towards Khan Sheikhun to help the terrorists,” a foreign ministry source said, using the regime’s blanket term for rebels and extremists.

This confirmed “the support provided by the Turkish regime to armed groups,” state news agency SANA reported the source as saying.

The AFP correspondent saw them in the town of Maaret al-Noman, which lies 15 kilometres north of Khan Sheikhun.

A Russian air strike hit the rebel vehicle leading the convoy just outside Maaret al-Noman, killing a Turkish-backed fighter from the Faylaq al-Sham group, the Britain-based Observatory said. — AFP

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